September 19, 2018 Pioneering spirit fuels alumnus’ political aspirations

Brendan St. John

For as long as he can remember, Brendan St. John (BSBA ’90) has had a deep connection with The Ohio State University. Growing up in the Columbus suburb of Westerville, his earliest memories include his Buckeyes football jerseys and selling soft drinks at Ohio State football games during his elementary school years. In fact, his connection to the university is so strong, it’s part of his identity — starting with his surname: St. John. 

Through research, Brendan St. John discovered that Lynn St. John, who served as the university’s second athletic director and for whom the storied arena is named, was a cousin to Brendan’s grandfather. Both Brendan St. John’s father and grandfather earned their degrees from the university. His maternal grandfather, who graduated in 1924 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, had the opportunity to work on the building of the ’Shoe during his studies at the university. 

Given those deep family ties — and St. John’s desire to earn a bachelor’s degree from a highly ranked business program, it’s no wonder he attended Ohio State.

As a student studying marketing, St. John recalls an abundance of confidence in what he’d be able to achieve after graduation. But he credits the practical advice from several impactful instructors, including former marketing professors Dr. H. Rao Unnava and Dr. Sundar Balakrishnan, whose accessibility, patience and guidance helped him temper his self-assurance, cultivate his resilient spirit and gain realistic expectations that there’s no quick path to success.

Brendan St. John on graduation day
Three days after earning his bachelor's degree from The Ohio State University,
Brendan St. John packed up his car and moved to California to seek his first job. 

One professor in particular was Dr. Roger Blackwell, who taught marketing and served as the academic advisor for the student chapter of the American Marketing Association (AMA), of which St. John was a member. 

“One of the things Professor Blackwell said — and I don’t know if he was the originator of this quote — but he said, ‘A lot of colleges will prepare you for your first job, but what I want to do, and what Ohio State wants to do, is prepare you for your last job,’” St. John said. “That quote got tucked away in my brain and has stayed with me all after all these years.” 

Those lessons have benefitted him throughout his career, particularly early on when he worked for several startup companies. He learned quickly how to embrace uncertainty and be persistent. 

Building a life out West

Three days after his graduation ceremony, St. John loaded up his 1990 Geo Storm and began the trek to the San Francisco Bay area of California to seek his first job, eventually landing at Friden Alcatel selling postage meters to businesses. In 1992, with a soft recession emerging, he joined the sales and client support team at LifeScan, a division of Johnson & Johnson. 

The eight years at LifeScan were an exciting time. He married his wife, Jessica, in 1996, bought a house in Pleasanton, California, and eventually earned his MBA from Santa Clara University. He was promoted into several roles over the years and, shortly after receiving his MBA, accepted a loyalty marketing position at the company. In 1999, his first child was born, and all seemed to be going well both personally and professionally. 

But, the period of calm was interrupted when layoffs occurred at LifeScan, and St. John found himself in the difficult position of being unemployed with a new baby at home. 

He drew from his strength of character and from the valuable lessons he learned at Ohio State and found a new marketing position at Palm, the manufacture of the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant. 

At Palm, St. John survived four company-wide layoffs during a 12-month period. But then, the 9/11 attacks occurred, resulting in an economic slowdown that led to even deeper employee cuts, and he lost his job during the fifth round of layoffs. 

But through his persistence and tapping in to his professional network, he joined TheraSense, a startup medical device company that had been founded by former colleagues from LifeScan. The company was eventually purchased by Abbott.

That startup-to-buyout, startup-to-shutdown cycle continued with three additional firms, but despite the turmoil, St. John embraced the uncertainty. 

“I’ve found that whether you succeed or fail at startups, you’re going to lose your job, because either the company closes or is bought,” he said. “And typically, when your company gets acquired, it’s been my experience that you cash in on stock, they thank you for your service and send you on your way.” 

He admits that the volatility he’s experienced throughout his career — while not for everyone — suites him just fine.  

“I will take life’s ups and downs because I think having those gullies is what makes you celebrate those mountains so much more. Without that perspective, it all gets blurred.” 

Brendan St. John (BSBA '90)

The pattern of startup to closure and buyout — and the uncertainty that accompanies it — positioned St. John well for the next chapter of his life and career.

The leap to political candidate

After his most-recent job ended with the venture capitalist pulling funds from the company, St. John decided it was time to make a professional change with the hope to one day effect political change. But rather than seeking public office in local government, St. John decided to run for the U.S. Congress as an independent candidate. 

The decision to run for office was borne out of his frustration with seeing how Washington wasn’t working during the 2016 presidential election, he said. 

“As I thought about running for Congress, I thought, ‘Is this really what government is supposed to be?’ We say ‘united states,’ but all I saw in the last three or four years was a country becoming even further divided,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a Democrat or a Republican. Both parties have very good aspects about their ideology and what they focus on.”

“It came down to a feeling of discontentment with the status quo.”

He credits Ohio State with giving him the confidence to step forward and run for office.   

“Whether it was getting involved in AMA, or being willing to go the extra mile and not being afraid to fail, having that instilled in me at a relatively young age has been very critical for me because of all the setbacks I’ve experienced,” he said.

In June 2018, St. John placed third in the California primary, but his optimism continues. 

“People are the hope of this nation. I met so many people of differing ethnicity, gender, religion, affluence and vocation, and they all seem to want the same thing: for Washington to work for the people.”

Brendan St. John (BSBA '90)

With his initial foray into politics, St. John admits that in running a grass-roots-funded campaign he was ineffective at getting his name and brand the visibility necessary to capture votes. He minimized his focus and priority on the fundraising aspects because it felt “too political,” but in reflection he understands the value that funding offers in getting a message to the district.

“Getting elected is far more challenging than I imagined prior to running,” he said. “I made my fair share of mistakes. For at least a little while more, my role in politics will be a supporting one.”

He’s undeterred in his determination to effect change and has a few ideas that he hopes to get supported and signed into California law by working with Republican State Assembly Representative Catherine Baker and Democratic State Senator Steve Glazer.  

From business experience to political involvement, he ties it all back to his days as an undergraduate student.     

“I led many successful team projects while at Ohio State, but I also was a contributor on many high-performing teams. Whether it’s business or politics, it’s important to understand what role you play and do your very best in that capacity.”

Brendan St. John (BSBA '90)

When he’s not working, St. John enjoys spending time with his wife and their three teenage children. He also enjoys getting his hands dirty with all aspects of gardening. 

In addition to his continued political efforts, he’s weighing options for next steps in his career and is considering a return to health care marketing. In contemplating his life since Ohio State, he draws inspiration from “Carmen Ohio,” noting that the song was written by Fred Cornell after the football team had just suffered its worst loss to That Team Up North.  

“The lyrics talk about seasons, but I’ve always interpreted them as life stages rather than literal references to weather,” he said. “It’s about going through good and bad times, and through it all staying true to who you are and the people and places you love.” 

“Setbacks can be the inspiration and motivation for great things in the future.” 

Editor’s note

Periodically, the Max M. Fisher College of Business features members of our alumni community who have applied their degrees to career paths outside of traditional business roles. In this feature, we profile one alumnus who applied his business acumen to his foray into politics. This story is not a college or university endorsement of the alumnus’ past or future political aspirations.